Calling Out Bullies Incognito

Justin Bergener remembers how deeply a bully's harassment affected his sister.

When Angela was a sophomore in high school, a classmate tormented her with crude sexual remarks until, after several months, she switched to a private school that offered online classes.

"[The bully said] she was a whore, verbally harassing her," the 28-year-old told "It was pretty tough for her and she experienced some depression. Some of her friends were against her."

Now 25 years old, Angela Truman is a happily married mother of two. But Bergener said it was watching her suffer in silence that prompted him to research school bullying as a college student and, eventually, start his own Web service that gives kids and parents a way to report bullies anonymously.

Launched in 2007, is now in 54 elementary, middle and high schools in Utah, Arizona, Texas, California and Washington. Truman's first high school -- Zillah High School in Washington -- is among them.

The beauty of the site, Bergener said, is that it allows for two-way anonymous conversation. It gives even the shyest kids a way to come forward while giving school authorities a mechanism to probe for additional information, he said.

Ever on the lookout for approaches to stem school violence, many educators and parents welcome a technology that encourages kids to speak up. But other experts in cyberbullying caution that, because Internet-based harassment can differ from face-to-face harassment, the online tool could be an insufficient -- and potentially harmful -- Bandaid.

Snitches Get Stitches

"Social repercussions for reporting are often worse than the harassment," Bergener said. As the saying goes, he continued, "snitches get stitches."

That fear of escalated harassment, he said, is one of the major reasons kids don't let parents and teachers know about violence they experience or see around school.

Indeed, education experts agree that one of the greatest obstacles educators face in addressing bullying is students' silence.

"The number one thing about bullying is that kids don't report it and it doesn't happen in sight of the teacher," said Jan Harp Domene, the president of the national Parent Teacher Association.

"Any type of communication along these lines is beneficial," she said. "If you give kids technology that allows them to have the opportunity to share their concerns and their fears, and not have to be the one to blow the whistle, then far more students will participate."

Valuable 'Safety Valve' for Students

Although Bergener's service is still in the pilot stage, he said students are showing their willingness to participate.

On average, he said, a school of about 1,000 students will see about 2 to 3 reports come in each week. Thirty percent of those provide their names, while the remainder choose to remain anonymous, he said.

A few of the reports schools receive are false reports, he admitted. But checks and balances in the system -- like blocking IP and e-mail addresses -- can prevent kids from crying wolf. Most schools, he continued, would rather see 10 good reports and one false one than none at all.

Dixon Middle School in Provo, Utah, signed up for the service at the start of the school year in 2007 and Principal Rosanna Ungerman said the site had averted after-school fights and allowed school authorities to nip other conflicts in the bud.

"[Reports are] usually not life-and-death, but it is an avenue for kids to report things. I'd much rather have more reports," Ungerman said. "As long as kids think they have an avenue to report -- to create a safety valve in the school."

Most of the alerts she receives address bullying and harassment, including cyberbullying. Some days, she receives two or three messages, but that number fluctuates. Earlier this week, a report about cyberbullying enabled her to intervene before serious conflict ensued, she said.

For their part, parents say they see it as a convenient way to flag the attention of often busy school officials.

Steve, 47, a father of an eighth-grader in Provo, said he used the site recently to let school authorities know that his 13-year-old son, Dallas, had been threatened by a classmate.

After-school rough-housing had left a classmate simmering, and at lunch the next day, that classmate told Dallas that "he'd better watch his back," Steve said.

"I think without the tip line, it might have been harder to get personal time with a teacher or principle," he said. "[It] worked as a go-between to get people talking."

Most importantly, he said, it helped alleviate the problem.

The day after he sent the message, Steve said the school contacted him. Soon after, the principal called in the two boys, first individually, then together.

Initially, Dallas was apprehensive about repercussions when he learned that his father had used the Web site, Steve said. But now that the issue has been addressed, Dallas is relieved.

"I was grateful," Dallas told Students aren't using it frequently yet, he said, but he thinks the anonymity of it makes it valuable because "they don't want to be called a narc or get beat up."

What About Cyberbullying?

Even though demonstrates a potential to encourage student participation, some cyberbullying experts worry that schools aren't yet prepared to handle cyberbullying with a third party, Internet-based system.

Parry Aftab, an Internet security and cyberbullying expert, said that while tip lines can be a helpful early warning system, if schools don't know how to navigate the complicated issue of cyberbullying, they could be opening themselves up to thorny legal problems.

Because cyberbullying usually occurs off school grounds, when kids have access to home computers, schools have limited authority over cyberbullying. Additionally, she said, many schools don't fully appreciate how differently cyberbullying incidents need to be treated from regular bullying incidents.

"Fifty percent you can translate back and forth, 50 percent [you can't]," she said. "The school needs to have a written cyberbullying policy, signed by parents and students."

"This is a very tricky issue. ... [This site] sounds good in concept, but my concern is the risk management issue," she said, adding that she was most concerned about the likelihood of cyberbullying reports being mishandled and the lack of training and knowledge on the schools' part.

Despite these concerns, educators maintain that can help them address all kinds of harassment.

Ungerman said cyberbullying is increasingly an issue reported by her students and one that they try to address.

She doesn't have a separate cyberbullying manual, but said that the line between home and school was not a clear one.

"We find that cyberbullying begins at school and is carried out out of school. There is a school link," she said.